Authorities are investigating whether an arson spree at a new housing development in a Washington suburb was a racist hate crime, since many of the homeowners are black, a federal prosecutor said Tuesday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Donna Sanger said the participants, “not all of whom are in custody at this time,” intended to “inflict as much damage as possible.”
Six people — all of them young white men — have been arrested, and authorities have said they have interviewed or plan to question about 10 others who may be connected to the fires.
The Dec. 6 fires destroyed 10 houses and damaged 16 others at the upscale Hunters Brooke development, much of which was still under construction. Damage was put at $10 million.
Sanger made her comments during a hearing for the first man arrested, Aaron L. Speed, 21. A magistrate granted the prosecutor’s request to keep Speed in jail without bail until his trial.
Speed’s attorney, John C. Chamble, called the government’s case “extremely thin,” saying there was no scientific evidence against his client, and argued for bail.
But the prosecutor responded that the fires were “an effort to wipe out a community. This is not a little lumber pile.”
Sanger said the homeowners have had their dreams wiped out for at least two years. As for whether the crime was racially motivated, the prosecutor said, that is “something we’re very carefully investigating.”
Speed and the other men in custody are charged with arson. None is charged with a hate crime.
Several other potential motives have been mentioned since the fires. Court papers made public Tuesday said one of the men under arrest, Michael Gilbert, 21, told investigators the fires were set to gain notoriety for a gang.
“Gilbert said that he was a member of ‘the family,’ also known as the ‘Unseen Cavaliers,’ a gang operating in Charles County, Md.,” authorities said in court papers. “The leader of the ‘family’ is Patrick Walsh. Gilbert stated that approximately one month ago, Walsh approached Gilbert saying Walsh had a plan to make ‘the family bigger and more famous.’ Walsh’s plan had to do with setting ‘something’ on fire and that it would be big.”
Officials said they had not heard of the Unseen Cavaliers before and had no information on the group.
Walsh, 20, was arrested over the weekend. His attorney, William B. Purpura, denied the allegations in the court papers.
Investigators have previously said racism may have been a motive. A federal law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity said earlier that two of the men under arrest made racial statements while talking to investigators.
Revenge also has been mentioned as a possible motive. Speed, a security guard at the construction site, allegedly told investigators he was angry with his employer because it did not show enough sympathy after his infant son died this year.
Also, the law enforcement source said another of the men under arrest, a volunteer firefighter, had tried unsuccessfully to get a job with the construction company building the houses.
Initially, there was speculation the fires were set by environmental extremists because some critics had complained the houses threatened a nearby bog. But no evidence has been found to support that theory, police said.
Gilbert appeared in court Tuesday and was ordered held for a bail hearing. His attorney would not comment. His mother, Christine Gilbert, said, “My son’s a good boy.”
Several of the men were interested in street racing and may have been members of an informal racing club, according to a law enforcement source who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“A lot of them know each other from that club. That’s one thing they had in common,” the source said.